Ingi Helgason: Speculative Design is being integrated into education in diverse ways

November 26, 2020

Sara Božanić talks with SpeculativeEdu team member Ingi Helgason about Speculative Design in research and education.

Ingi Helgason has had what might be described as a varied career. She started working in photography and publishing in the faraway pre-digital days when the tools of the trade included darkrooms, halftone screens, Letraset and spray mount. When the desktop publishing revolution hit she moved on to using Aldus PageMaker on a Macintosh Plus, and she has been interested in the impact of creative technologies on our lives ever since. She then spent a few years working on outreach and access to the arts, before returning to publishing work. Eventually she realised that the Internet was probably more than a passing fad and so she signed up for a Masters in Multimedia and Interactive Systems at Edinburgh Napier University. Here she was introduced to the domain of Human Computer Interaction, and then to the slightly more glamorous field of Interaction Design. She went on to complete a PhD inspired partly by the approaches of Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby, who posed the question of how to “design products that provide complex and complicated pleasures, that stimulate our imaginations, create dilemmas, make us think, and rather than smoothing out our lives, actually create glitches”1. For over a decade Ingi combined teaching innovation and technology design at The Open University with research at Edinburgh Napier University. She has worked on European Commission research projects in the H2020, FP7 and FP6 frameworks, and is currently a researcher with Creative Informatics, an ambitious research and development programme based in Edinburgh, funded by the UK’s AHRC Creative Economy Programme. Creative Informatics aims to bring the city’s creative industries and tech sector together, providing funding and development opportunities that enable creative individuals and organisations to explore how data can be used to drive ground-breaking new products, businesses and experiences.

You are a researcher, a partner in the SpeculativeEdu project, so where does your own practice as a researcher sit within Speculative Design?

I can’t really say that I am a creative practitioner myself, instead I am interested in the role of creativity and design within culture and society. I find Speculative Design interesting because it provides an accessible starting point for questioning our relationships with innovation and technology from a social and cultural perspective. Many of the research projects that I have worked on have involved new and emerging computational technologies, and I feel privileged that my work has allowed me to learn about these from leading scientists and researchers. My role has often involved communicating these advancements and their potential social implications to a wider audience and trying to find engaging modes of presentation that encourage dialogue and debate. The “WHAT IF…” exhibition in 2009 at the Science Gallery, Dublin, curated by Dunne & Raby, was particularly inspirational to me in the way that it used design, fiction and speculation to engage visitors in conversations about the potential of future technological products and services. This new – at least to me – critical design approach influenced my work; a couple of examples that I worked on are an online magazine called KEHO for a project about presence research, and This Pervasive Day2, an exhibition about research into pervasive adaptation in computing.

Keho online magazine

As part of the SpeculativeEdu project you have conducted research on Speculative Design in the educational environment. Can you share the findings with us? What insight surprised you the most?

The online survey was open for contributions and it was promoted with the aim of capturing opinions from people that we might not have reached in other ways. This gave us data from several European countries and regions, across a varied set of educational disciplines, and we have written up the findings in detail in a paper that will be published soon (expected in 2021). Some of the opinions expressed were not so surprising to me, there seemed to be a general agreement that this family of approaches – Speculative Design, Critical Design, Design Fiction and others – gives educators a way to support students to gain both practical design skills along with critical thinking skills. Educators are aware that the future world that their graduates will shape is quite unknown, we only know that it will be different from the world of today. As it seems that change is happening increasingly rapidly, students need to be able to imagine alternatives and engage with the possible consequences of their designed interventions. The importance of interdisciplinarity was also mentioned in the survey, with approaches such as Design Fiction providing an accessible, bridging approach that enables students with different backgrounds to work together.

I was quite surprised at the diversity of ways that Speculative Design is being integrated into educational courses. Educators are clearly finding their own ways of using these approaches in ways that are appropriate to their own situations and contexts. I also noticed that some educators expressed the aim of using Speculative Design to create active change and to make an impact in the real world. Some respondents talked about ideas such as getting communities engaged in collaborative transformations.

What is the current state of Speculative Design in education (formal and informal)?

Judging by the survey responses the state of Speculative Design education, including the whole family of related approaches, is at an exciting point currently. Our survey shows that a broad spectrum of educators are embracing the ethos of Speculative Design and adapting it to work within their own situations. It is evolving into different branches and varieties to suit the needs of disciplines, institutions and local contexts. It will be interesting to follow the traces of the next generations of graduates who have been exposed to Speculative Design as they move out into the world.

The dominant view seems to be that Speculative Design is not so much about special methods or tools, it is primarily about the mindset behind their use.

Are there any key trends, methods and/or tools that are recognized and frequently used by Speculative Design practitioners?

The dominant view seems to be that Speculative Design is not so much about special methods or tools, it is primarily about the mindset behind their use. Actually, many of the educators in the survey talked about using the creative freedom that Speculative Design offers as a context within which to learn the standard tools and methods of their own disciplines. The inclusion of future thinking and future studies as a taught subject does seem to be something of a trend, and Speculative and Critical Design approaches are used for developing analytical and critical thinking skills in order to interrogate forecasts and visions. Systemic and infrastructural thinking was mentioned as an important skill in the survey along with the ability to debate, and to navigate controversy and complexity. There is evidence of a growing attitude that problems can be fluid and contested, and that learning to design includes gaining understanding of controversy, diversity and plurality.

Together with Michael Smyth, Ivica Mitrović, Oleg Šuran and Enrique Encinas you delivered the ACM DIS 2020 online workshop in Speculative Design. Can you tell us more about that?

The ACM Designing Interactive Systems conference is a global event for the academic interaction design community, addressing technology, computing and design. We proposed the workshop, titled “Speculative and Critical Design in Education: Practice and Perspectives“  in order to expose the work of the SpeculativeEdu project to this community and to invite more voices to the discussion. We were delighted that the workshop was accepted, demonstrating that the topic is valued by this community.

Due to the pandemic situation the whole conference switched to online, so we missed the opportunity to visit Eindhoven in the Netherlands where it was due to take place, and to meet up in person. The positive side to this shift was that we could include a larger number of participants in the workshops including people who may not have managed to attend the conference otherwise. I hope that this is one aspect that is a positive one to emerge from the crisis we all find ourselves in – a greater willingness to include people in events who cannot travel for whatever reason.

We selected papers and posters for the workshop through an open call, these are available on the workshop website. Over two afternoons in July we enjoyed wide-ranging presentations and discussions from participants ranging from students to senior academics. We did not record the event in order to enable a supportive and less stressful atmosphere for debate. Zoom was used as the main platform, but Oleg Šuran designed and created a virtual environment in Mozilla Hubs that allowed us to move around and socialise during the breaks.

Following on from that event we are delighted to announce that we are editing a special edition, with an open call, of the IxD&A (Interaction Design and Architecture (s)) journal on “Speculative and Critical Design: Approaches and influences in education”. The edition will be published in Autumn 2021.

“Speculative and Critical Design in Education: Practice and Perspectives” ACM DIS 2020 workshop

In your opinion, what is the strength of Speculative Design and its future in educational contexts (in design and outside of design)?

For me I think that Speculative Design is important because it provides a framework to develop critical thinking skills while also learning the craft and practice of design. The particular strength of the approach is that it can be flexible and can be adapted to a variety of educational situations.

Can you name a project that in your opinion showcases best what Speculative Design is and should be?

I’m not sure that I have the authority to say what Speculative Design should be, and I find it difficult to name one best project because, for me, it is often the process and the story behind the project that is most interesting. The way that we encounter a project affects how we understand it and respond to it. An exhibit that we experience as a polished presentation in a gallery is understood differently to one that we read about in books or articles. As an educator, I have been privileged to watch the development process behind some student projects, and often it is the research, the discussions, and the refinement of creative skills that I find most impactful. Early speculative concepts that are rejected can still be powerful for producing insights around a situation. This is often a dilemma in assessment of student work – how to reward the balance between the qualities of the learning process and of the final presentation. The shape of the design brief influences how the student navigates the journey of interrogation and sense making, and because of this I find I’m drawn to interesting problems.

One problem that stays with me as an unsolvable, yet intriguing, design brief is that of coping with nuclear waste storage, and conveying the dangers of tampering with the sealed and buried stores to future generations. To do this requires speculation about how human cultures and societies might function tens of thousands of years into the future. This monumental task has actually been attempted and the story is very much like a Speculative Design fiction. (It is documented in a podcast called “Ten Thousand Years” by 99% Invisible that describes some of the proposed solutions, including educational theme parks and folk songs about genetically modified ray cats.) Two interdisciplinary teams of eminent people drawn from domains including geology, linguistics, astronomy and archeology, as well as artists, designers and writers were invited to tackle this communication problem at a nuclear waste storage plant in New Mexico. The documentation of their ideas and concepts is fascinating. While there seemed to be much consensus on the design criteria, there was less agreement on finding a workable solution. After all, the warnings and curses written on the tombs of ancient Egypt did not deter raiders centuries later. However the attempt itself seems to be just as important as any finished concept, and this quote taken from the document produced by one of the teams seems like a very Speculative Design way of thinking: “The very exercise of designing, building, and viewing the markers creates a powerful testimony addressed to today’s society about the full environmental, social, and economic costs of using nuclear materials. We can never know if we indeed have successfully communicated with our descendants 400 generations removed, but we can, in any case, perhaps convey an important message to ourselves.” (There is more about this topic in the 2016 film Containment.)


  1. Bill Moggridge, Designing Interactions (2007 

  2. Helgason, I., Bradley, J., Egan, C., Paechter, B., & Hart, E. (2011). This pervasive day: creative Interactive methods for encouraging public engagement with FET research. Procedia computer science, 7, 207-208. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.procs.2011.09.028 

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